How do we define success in today’s music industry? More specifically, how do we as an audience determine what makes a rapper successful in hip-hop today? There isn’t an equation that can get us to an answer that works for every single artist, but if you pay close enough to attention, you'll begin to see the characteristics that comprise, in rap today, a “successful career."
The first step toward a successful career is a successful first album. In an age of independent artistry, competition between streaming services that provides us an overwhelming supply of music until we're basically drowning, and more accessibility to artists through the internet than ever before, a debut album needs to impact or else it becomes white noise.
Today’s industry demands uniqueness in order to succeed, as well as an understanding of core audience and how consumers will digest a particular artist’s project. Some acts choose to take the stream-only route, creating bloated projects that cater to the idea that the listeners will play through the album by jumping to their favorite parts instead of listening from front to back; think Drake’s More Life. Others choose to go down the concept route, creating such a unique and personal experience that the body of work is able to gather both critical adoration and increased sales because of its ability to stand apart from anything else around it; think Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN.
Personalities also matter. Rap artists operating in today’s industry can’t just rely on their lyrics alone to help them get by, but must also possess the charisma to convince their listeners that their lyrics are worth hearing. That isn’t to say lyricism and complexity are dead, but with much shorter attention spans and a neverending plethora of music to sift through, the artists themselves must become worthy of their listeners’ time.
It’s hard to compare and contrast debut albums in order to contextualize which releases have been a success and which have failed, and this becomes even more challenging when reflecting on debut albums from previous decades—especially considering how the industry has changed over the past 30 years—but using Wu-Tang Clan as a template, I'm going to give it a go.
Ask nine Wu-Tang Clan fans who their favorite group member is and you'll get nine different answers—one for each original member of the group. Each emcee has a distinct personality, from Raekwon’s raspy, slang-heavy style and Method Man’s blunted, yet smooth delivery, and each brought something completely unique to the table on their solo debut. Although the Wu’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) debut is one of the greatest rap records in history, it was each of the members’ solo projects that catapulted the group into the pantheon of rap history.
How would Ghostface Killah, GZA, Method Man, Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Raekwon individually fare in today’s climate? Each delivered a debut album that was considered, at the time, to be an undisputed classic, but what if they were released in 2017?
To be clear, this is not a ranking of the five best Wu-Tang solo debut albums. It also does not factor in debuts from Inspectah Deck, RZA, U-God, Masta Killa or Cappadonna because their notoriety compared to the other five albums is much lower and nobody is going to read an article that requires three hours of free time.
I also want to define the criteria of “success” by which these albums are ranked. Success, in this case, is a combination of how popular each album would be sales-wise, how accessible the music would be for casual and hardcore listeners alike, how each of the rappers’ personalities would fit in amongst today's most successful rappers, and the defining characteristics of each album that are either present, or not, in today’s climate.
Without further ado, let’s see which album would fare the best…
5. Raekwon — Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...
Released: August 1, 1995
Best Tracks: “Verbal Intercourse,” “Criminology,” “Ice Cream,” “Guillotine (Swordz)”
Raekwon’s solo debut, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx..., is one of the greatest rap albums ever created, period. Rarely has an album captured a particular theme from start to finish the way OB4CL captures the art of mafioso rap. From the jovial brutality of “Knuckleheadz” and haunting chime samples of “Criminology,” to the laid-back earnestness of Rae and Ghostface Killah on “Heaven and Hell” and an all-time verse by Nas on “Verbal Intercourse” (“Props is a true thug’s wife”), Rae’s debut commands every single second of his listeners’ attention. There is not a bad—or even below average—song on OB4CL, and you would be hard-pressed to find an album that sounds more like an oasis of rap nostalgia than the third Wu solo debut.
OB4CL is a tour de force, and an album you can connect throughout hip-hop history to some of rap’s most notorious “mafia rappers.” Rae was the archetype of the Rick Rosses and Pusha Ts of today. The project fully captures the sounds of the mid-'90s, and from its stems rose the foundations of countless rap careers.
Yet, with all of that considered, the album feels like the least likely of the five major Wu-Tang solo debuts to be successful today.
It might seem strange for an album that maintains such a legacy to inversely feel so foreign to what makes an album successful in 2017, but it’s easier once we look at the components that made it successful upon its original release. OB4CL works BECAUSE of its exclusiveness. It’s a niche project in almost every way, glorifying a very specific type of lifestyle in a very complex manner. Nothing about the album is easy to pick up, and even as someone who puts it in his top five favorite albums, I find myself wishing I had spark notes during my first few listens. Raekwon and Ghostface (who appears on over half the album's tracks) are relentless throughout, but as admirable as it was in an era where each listener had time to digest the full scope of their lyrics, such intricacy would, unfortunately, fall on deaf ears in the world of streaming.
OB4CL’s best quality is Raekwon’s distinctive personality. With subtle punchlines, rhyme schemes that feel like slight of hand tricks, and a personality that lets us imagine what Al Capone would sound like with 16 bars, Raekwon is a rugged mixture of braggadocio and complexity. Yet, for all of his brilliance, his personality also fits an era of rappers that grows thinner by the year, and with an industry constantly highlighting rappers who sound louder and bolder, Raekwon never needed to be that.
It will forever be an album that rap enthusiasts can look to for nostalgic purposes in terms of retracing the roots of some of the biggest street rappers of our time. Yet, OB4CL, and by extension, Raekwon, doesn't fit the mold of a successful 2017 album because of its imprint in time.
It’s best to use Raekwon’s album as an influence towards successful iterations of his own style, but it serves as the roots of the tree rather than its biggest and healthiest branches.
4. Ghostface Killah — Ironman
Released: October 29, 1996
Best Tracks: “Winter Warz,” “Daytona 500,” “Camay,” “All That I Got Is You”
One of the most important components to a successful rap debut that has changed over the years is the prominence each particular artist has on their own project. That delicate balance between carrying the load lyrically and conceptually, while not relying too heavily on guest features is a high-wire act that has proven deadly for some of the best emcees on their debut. These days, dwindling attention spans and patience from fans means an artist might only have one shot to prove that they can stay the course over an entire project without ever overstaying their welcome.
Welcome, Ghostface Killah’s Ironman.
Ironman is an incredible album and Ghostface Killah, as he has proven time and time again over the course of his illustrious career, is one of the best storytelling rappers in the history of the genre. It’s hard to separate a lot of the thematic elements on Ironman from Only Built 4 Cuban Linx..., however, because Ghostface’s debut works like a conceptual sequel to Raekwon’s album from the year prior. Yet, the reason Ironman lands at number four has less to do with why it’s sitting above Raekwon’s album on our list and has more to do with why it’s behind the next three projects; much like OB4CL, Ghostface’s debut feels like an album that would suffer in today’s industry for its failure to establish its main artist from the guests on the album.
There are aspects of Ironman that make it much more accessible than OB4CL, though. For one, it’s biggest hits—such as the screeching and relentless “Winter Warz,” or “Daytona 500,” which feels like a bank heist on wax—feel like formidable hits that transcend the boundaries of Ironman’s album concept. Songs like “All That I Got Is You,” compared with those like “Fish,” feel limitless in their potential for singular success, and in a way that a listener could picture Ironman’s success in a streaming world where listeners could enter into the project from different angles.
Yet, Ghostface’s biggest obstacle would, ironically, be a lack of Ghostface. From Ironman to Ghostface’s next album, the classic Supreme Clientele, his workload on the album isn't hard to track. Three of the album’s best verses come from Raekwon (on “Camay” and “The Faster Blade”) and Cappadonna (on “Winter Warz,”) and Ghostface is the sole rapper on only four of the album's 17 tracks.
Sure, it's a classic album by a classic artist, but most of its high notes are hit when Ghost is not around.
3. Method Man — Tical
Released: November 15, 1994
Best Tracks: “Bring The Pain,” “Meth vs. Chef,” “All I Need,” “Release Yo’ Delf”
Arguably the least impressive album on this list in terms of quality and legacy, Method Man’s Tical, the first official solo debut from a Wu member, displays why it's both less remembered for its time, as well as why it would work better today than two albums that were subjectively better.
Tical today feels the least Wu-Tang-associated solo project of all the major debuts. In fact, it doesn’t even contain a feature until the fifth track, “What The Blood Clot.” Despite most of the production being handled by RZA, as was the case with the majority of Wu members' solo debuts, there’s a feeling Tical is very much distant from its own cousins in the expanded Wu-Tang universe.
In short, Tical is a rap album with a rapper just rapping. There’s no higher, intricate concept, heavy use of terminology outside of its title, or context in which it needs to be listened under. It works as a potentially more successful project in today’s era because of those components.
What works in Method Man’s favor today can best be described as a lack of cohesive narrative surrounding the album. It's a characteristic that’s helped an artist like Drake see incredible success as of late; the idea of creating a project that works best from multiple entry points so that fans can pick and choose their favorite songs. Call it “streamability” if you want, but the act of creating a project specifically designed to attract listeners to only a handful of songs, as opposed to the full project, is a popular tactic today. Tical accidentally fits that narrative pretty well.
Most of Method Man’s subject matter on Tical is easy to access, consisting of shit-talking, blunt-smoking and the occasional, marketable love song (“All I Need”). You can press play on Tical from essentially any point and never feel as though you missed something from its beginning. Each song captures something a little bit different conceptually, and with that comes the potential for a wider audience. Partnered with Method Man’s undeniable charm, incredible voice and cadence, and the fact that he can rap his ass off, and you have the potential for a hit record sitting in your hands.
Is Tical better than Ironman or OB4CL? Absolutely not. However, in 2017, your success is directly tied to the number of people who are willing to listen, and Tical undeniably casts a wide net.
2. GZA — Liquid Swords
Released: November 7, 1995
Best Tracks: “4th Chamber,” “Labels,” “Cold World,” “Investigative Reports”
One of the key components to rap success in 2017 is a willingness to show emotion. The industry has shifted in a way that favors the more introspective, self-reflecting artist that chooses a more personal experience for their album material. From SoundCloud-grown newcomers like Lil Uzi Vert and Lil Yachty to the genre's biggest names—from J. Cole and Kendrick to Drake and Kanye—rappers now employ a level of emotional vulnerability not often seen in the machismo-rampant glory days of '90s East Coast rap. For the listener to stick with an artist these days, especially from the time they release their debut, the artist has a duty to provide fans with something to latch onto.
Inversely, what will always stand in the way of most of Wu-Tang's solo albums is that nearly all of them hit an emotional barrier that each of their curators refused to cross. As was especially the case on the three previous albums on this list, emotional songs only go skin deep with “All I Need” by Method Man and “All That I Got Is You” by Ghostface Killah being the anomalies of the bunch, and even those songs only focus on the feelings of love.
Wu-Tang has never been a group known for embracing the flaws within themselves, nor their surroundings, as a useful tactic for music, and that isn’t a critique. Rather, it serves as further evidence as to why many of their solo efforts would fail to resonate if released in 2017; all except Liquid Swords by GZA.
Liquid Swords by no means completes the task of an emotional concept album to the tee. Yet, it stands apart from almost every other Wu debut, and that is why it remains both a special album and one that could very well see success in 2017. GZA, both the oldest and most lyrically mature of the entire collective, created something much more profound with his debut (note: his Wu-Tang debut—he had an album prior to joining the group). Liquid Swords, arguably the best Wu-Tang project and one of the best albums of all-time, is a journey into the cold, empty streets of New York City, laced with methodical and disorienting RZA production that matches GZA’s smoldering lyrics. The album continuously breathes fire from its lungs just hot enough to keep you from turning to ash until it wants you to. In its original form, it is perfect.
Liquid Swords doesn’t succeed off that perfection alone in 2017, though. Rather, it’s success lies in GZA’s storytelling, and his ability to weave different narratives in and out of the project, never staying too long on one topic. “Living in The World Today” is a haunting, brutal lyrical exhibition that has GZA pulling you into his world. “Labels” finds GZA shit-talking the unfortunate reality of being a label rapper, weaving labels like Atlantic, Arista and even Death Row into his onslaught. “Investigative Reports” is a somber, depressing look at the circumstances almost championed in other Wu albums, one that finds GZA emotionally juxtaposed to his entire group.
Where the other projects found their brilliance in the continuity of celebrating where they came from, everything about Liquid Swords screams the opposite.
Much like J. Cole, Kendrick and Vince Staples, GZA managed to find his largest audience when he turned the narrative just slightly towards his own inner monologue. Even the production on Liquid Swords feels disorienting and menacing, but never in an inviting way. Songs like “Swordsman” and “4th Chamber,” although holding the trademark Wu-Tang samples, feel like knives to the heart where the other members chose guns to the head, musically speaking.
Emotion and perspective are close to indefinable qualities in terms of what we look for in our artists. Most of the time, all we ask is that the artist makes an attempt. On GZA’s first Wu-Tang outing, that’s exactly what we got, and we were all the better for it.
1. Ol’ Dirty Bastard — Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version
Released: March 28, 1995
Best Tracks: “Shimmy Shimmy Ya,” “Raw Hide,” “Brooklyn Zoo,” “Harlem World”
If there’s one quality we look for in our rap music today, it’s creative control. Especially on a debut album, the idea that what an artist is giving us is 100% them, through and through, is invaluable. We crave Kanye albums because of this. We adore Kendrick Lamar because we can hear and almost feel every creative decision he makes on a record. Even an artist like Young Thug is regarded so highly because, despite his polarity, we get as close to his undoctored genius as we are bound to get in music, even if that genius is raw and untamed.
ODB is not the most talented member of Wu-Tang Clan, nor did he release the best solo debut. In fact, he’s much like the Draymond Green of the collective, with a career and personality that almost feels tangential to the success of the group. He lived in his own world and, at times, it felt like that world was a black hole of untamed genius masking itself in hopes that we never noticed.
This is also why Return to The 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version is at the top of this list. It’s a journey into the absolute madness of one 26-year-old man, creating his magnum opus out of slurred rhymes, incoherent singing, improvisational rants, and just enough Wu presence to keep the die-hard fans happy.
The Dirty Version would work in 2017, not only because ODB had, like Young Thug, a polarizing effect on hip-hop and style. Rather, the album works because of the same scope that it gives us about its particular main character the same way Thugger’s music has done for him. In other words, everything on it sounds like an ODB creation, and that matters greatly in this day and age. You can tell from the album’s intro that its experience is so closely related to the bizarre, conceptually fluctuating, stream-of-consciousness rap that has topped the charts for the last several years.
ODB begins the album by sobbing through a story about how a girl he slept with gave him gonorrhea, despite the fact that the sex he had with her was fantastic, all while a cheesy piano plays over his story. It’s jaw-droppingly strange, weirdly hilarious, and exactly him. You don't have to look much farther than an artist like Lil Yachty, another extremely polarizing figure, to see that same, successful, attempt at uniqueness.
The Dirty Version possesses several characteristics that give off the same vibes as some of the most successful acts in music today. ODB’s voice inflection and his ability to change his cadence at the strangest times feel Kendrick-esque. On songs like “Raw Hide,” his ability to rap his verse only to stop midway through to rant has all the founding qualities of Tyler, The Creator’s earliest material. Even ODB’s cognizance to spreading all of his fellow Wu members’ features throughout the album, as opposed to the weighted posse cuts of other debuts, feels perfectly crafted. Where the other albums on this list felt like co-creations of the artist and RZA, The Dirty Version feels like ODB’s monster that he allowed RZA to be a part of.